“Immigrant” in your Own Land

As I read a bit about Yu Guan Soon, I was shocked to find out that she would die so young, she would die at age 17. Before I read the passage about her, I was taken aback by the grainy picture next to the Soon’s name. I wondered, is this her? I wondered if I was staring at the revolutionary who I was about to read about; however, I couldn’t tell if that woman in the picture was her and I thought maybe that was the point. Maybe the point was to prove that this isn’t just Soon’s story, but it is the story of many young revolutionaries who fought against Japan and lost their lives. Maybe this picture wasn’t meant to give a face to the girl, but rather it was meant to give a face to the revolution.

As I read the passage about the struggles in Soon’s life, I was particularly struck by one line on page 32, “To other nations who are not witnesses, who are not subject to the same oppressions, they cannot know.” This line reminded me a lot about immigration and the obstacles that come along with it. This line relates to the idea that only the nations involved with internal conflict/war will understand the oppressions that are occurring. Only the Koreans and the Japanese understand the oppression occurring, all other citizens are outsiders and cannot understand.

In Soon’s story, Japan conquests Korea and although Soon is not an immigrant, she becomes marginalized as such. Her country is overtaken by Japan and now she is seen as foreign. This is similar to what we have read in GWG and even our own history in the USA with manifest destiny. In all these instances, a person’s land was conquered and changed before them. Their language was taken away and their way of living erased. They have to ascribe to the dominant culture. This experience mirrors that to an immigrant. These are not immigration stories, they are stories about marginalization, colonization, and betrayal; however, in many ways these people have been forced to live a life like an immigrant. They have become foreign and must assimilate to a land that was once theirs.

Embassytown and Derrida’s Of Hospitality

It is useful to think of language and power as being deeply and complicatedly intertwined in China Mielville’s Embassytown. In the text, language is central to the characters’ identities, as well as the power that comes alongside it. Hosts, while at first appear as the more dominant and/or powerful social class in the text, are also left tremendously vulnerable, as they can only speak “Language” and are highly dependent on the Ambassadors to translate Language into language, so that if need be they can communicate with, and perhaps more importantly control, Terre, or the humans. The Language or language one speaks in the text comes to be a defining factor for the characters both personally and collectively. For example, Avice’s affiliation with being a simile, which is at first almost entirely apathetic or nonexistent, comes to gradually identify with a “simile” or perhaps more widely a “figure of speech” collective. More broadly, as the plot unfolds, we see that the stability of Embassytown as we once knew it breaks down entirely once the Hosts begin to access language and one could argue take it hostage as they appropriate it for lying. Thus, one could argue that the entire social hierarchy and stability of Mielville’s fictional world relies almost exclusively on maintaining this balance of access to language and therefore power.

As I tried to briefly introduce last class, I think it would be a useful exercise to try and map the idea of language and power within the context of Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality. Derrida situates the idea of language and foreignness within the paradigm of hospitality. More specifically, he deconstructs the idea of hospitality into the absolute Law of hospitality and the laws of hospitality. To summarize briefly, the Law of hospitality is the absolute ideal form of hospitality, one that makes the Host unconditionally hospitable to the guest. In this ideal state of hospitality there are no laws to which the host/guest relationship is bound. The paradox, however, lies in the fact that in order to achieve the Law of Hospitality one must follow the laws, or rules, of hospitality that inevitably govern it, thus rendering the Law of Hospitality ultimately unattainable.

In order to think of the Law of Hospitality in the context of Embassytown, we would be forced to identify the hosts (with a lowercase h) and the guests in the social hierarchy that defines the space. I would argue, and I hope Derrida would agree, that while at first the Hosts would appear to be the hosts (as the colonizers and characters in the positions of power), it is ironically the Terre who possess the power in language and are hosting the Hosts. Derrida states, “The foreigner who, inept at speaking the language, always risks being without defense before the law of the country that welcomes or expels him…He has to ask for hospitality in a language which by definition is not his own, the one imposed on him by the master of the house, the host…This personage imposes on him translation into their own language, and that’s the first act of violence. That is where the question of hospitality begins: must we ask the foreigner to understand us, to speak our language, in all the senses of this term…?” (Derrida, 13). In the context of Embassytown, we should ask ourselves who is really “imposing language” and therefore inhabiting the role of the host? In the text Scile posits to Avice, “We’ve always known the Hosts need you, right? You and the rest of you” (Pg. 141). It would be interesting to try and work out how this power dynamic plays out against the backdrop of Derrida’s Law/laws of hospitality. Could the Law of hospitality ever be achieved in Embassytown and how? Perhaps the breakdown of Embassytown’s social structure can be attributed to a breach in the laws of hospitality on the part of the Hosts? On the part of the humans? Furthermore, we could think of Embassytown as being a space inhabited by locals and foreigners. How does language define who is a local and who is a foreigner? And how does possessiveness (either necessarily or unnecessarily) over these titles prevent the possibility for absolute Hospitality?

Leader of His People

I found the ending of the novel a little abrupt and a bit peculiar. I was really struck by the way George thought about his family and his warped perception of things.  In the beginning of part v, he lays on the bed and thinks about how his son, and “(it would be a he) would be blond and blue eyed like his mother. The thought pleased him very much” (282). While the moment is subtle, it encapsulates the hyper masculine culture has grown up as well as the internalized racism he seems to present in the last chapters. I wanted to chalk the snippet to racism but after revisiting the naming scene, I realized that George’s father also bestowed him with a gringo name in the hope of helping him achieve his destiny.

I think it was rather obvious that Gualinto was never really going to grow up and help his people in the way characters in the novel expected. Yet, the shift in Gualinto’s personality in part v becomes more understandable when he has the conversation with his uncle and admits to becoming a soldier. Feliciano states, “you walk like one now. you talk like one. I can tell; I’ve seen plenty of them in my time” (299).  It’s not really an argument or a showdown of any kind, there’s no outward aggression but there’s still a strong underlying tension. George replies that “Mexicans will always be Mexicans. A few of them, like some of those would be politicos, could make something of themselves if they would just do like i did. Get out of this filthy Delta, as far away as they can, and get rid of their Mexican greaser attitudes” (300).  George has a strong sense of individual identity and though he doesn’t deny his uncle’s help, he also seems to believe that only a few can be successful because the collective Mexican identity is a bad one. The passage reminded me of an earlier moment in the novel in which Paredes writes, “the Mexicotexan has a conveniently dual personality.” (195)

Success Stories and Characterizations of Immigrants

Throughout parts one and two of the novel, there is a major shift in the characterization of Feliciano, which takes place within the short time frame of his brother-in-law Gurmersindo’s death. At first, one could argue that Feliciano is depicted as Gumersindo’s “fringe” or “extremist” counterpart. In response to Gumerdinso’s decision to name his newborn son after a “great Gringo” Feliciano states, “They are all great…Great thieves, great liars, great sons-of-bitches. Show me a man of them who isn’t money-mad and one of their women who is not a harlot” (Pg. 16). This fanatical and intolerant characterization is situated in contrast to Gumersindo’s, which is one of absolute tolerance and acceptance. However these character portrayals are ephemeral, and a major shift in Feliciano’s character takes place after Gumersindo is murdered and obliges Feliciano to never tell his son why he was murdered, out of fear it would inspire hate in him. Shortly after, it seems that Feliciano inhabits many of his brother-in-law’s qualities.

What is constant throughout this shift is the employment of sympathetic character portrayals to the characters who inhabit first Gumersindo’s characteristics, and then eventually Feliciano’s. Paredes seems to be indicating that these are favorable qualities for an immigrant to occupy. That being said (according to a reading of the text that is incomplete), neither of these characters has truly achieved success. While more overtly Gurmersindo suffers a tragic death almost immediately after choosing to give the Rangers and/or Gringos the benefit of the doubt and remain put, Feliciano who becomes financially successful has not yet succeeded in what is presented as the ultimate immigrant accomplishment, for Gualinto “…to be a learned man and help his people” (Pg. 49) (which Feliciano admits to lacking a clear vision of what that would entail). Thus, there seems to be multiple and perhaps contradictory forces taking place within the text. While Paredes seems to elevate the immigrant characters in the novel that are sympathetic, he does not necessarily seem to be making the argument that these are the characters who will ultimately succeed. I am curious to see how the narrative ensues and to see whether Gualinto is eventually able to “help his people” and therefore attain greatness.

Gringo Territory

As I was reading George Washington Gomez this week one main thought kept popping into my head. I kept thinking about Gumersindo’s obsession for Gualinto to be free of hatred against white people, gringos, rinches. Gumersindo’s wish for his son seems to be unattainable due to Gualintos inevitable socialization. Throughout the book we learn that Gumersindo’s wish will never be true and on page 105 Gualinto specifically states how white people cannot be good.

Another section of the novel where we can see Gualinto’s response to living in a county ruled by white people is when Gualinto is hiding from the police after Filomeno’s murder. As the police officers arrived, Gualinto was too afraid to show himself. He was too afraid to present himself to these white men. He expected them to torture him for information or arrest him. Gualinto’s thoughts were striking to me, because the idea of police brutality and fear of law still rings true in present day America. In this scene, the police do not go after the perpetrators of the murder. They do not do much, because the man who died was not white. The book never elaborates on if the killers were caught, but this inability for marginalized people to receive justice continues to this day.

Many times throughout the story we see Gualinto’s fear of white men. Feliciano attempts to follow Gumersindo’s wish of raising Gualinto free of hatred; however, he fails. He fails because Gualinto is growing up in a society where Mexicans are constantly oppressed. Gualinto can’t grow up free of hatred, because he doesn’t know what that looks like or feels like. This feeling of otherness due to culture and race is all Gualinto knows.

Growing up as Guálinto

While reading Part 1 and 2 of George Washington Gómez, I was captivated by the relationship between Feliciano and his nephew, Guálinto. Feliciano serves as a father-figure, mentor, and teacher for this young child, and it seems as though Guálinto takes many cues from his uncle about how a Texas Mexican man should conduct himself in an Anglo-American dominated environment. There is a clear and tangible debate over the owners of the Texas land, and which community of residents came first. Furthermore, there is a sentiment of inferiority amongst the Texas Mexicans, as if the optimism and golden opportunities promised in the new world do not extend to them. These feelings eventually take a toll on one’s psyche, and readers see instances of violence and emotional breakdown in Guálinto (for example: when he pretends the plants and vegetables outside are the bodies of rinches). Feliciano exclaims, “Just wait till I grow up! Just wait till I’m a man! I’ll get out land back. Shoot them down like dogs. I’ll kill all the Gringos and the rinches too, and drive them away from here” (103). However, Feliciano was charged with the duty of raising Guálinto into a peaceful man and not sharing the truth about his father’s gory death, so the struggle becomes, how does an elder teach the next generation to peacefully advocate for his identity without knowing the truth about his past? If violence is all around and minority inequality is not solved by unarmed protest, isn’t violence the only way to survive? How is that communicated to a child? I’m interested to see how this story develops over the course of the novel.

A Question of Authenticity

In reading the first half of Tsiang and China Has Hands, I was struck by the negative tone and language used to describe the people and lifestyle in America. Americans are often referred to as ‘foreign devils’, savage-like creatures with no understanding of or appreciation for authentic Chinese culture. The narrator, whose identity is unclear, portrays the American as manipulative, with their only intention to take advantage of inferior immigrants. For example, the narrator describes Wong Wan-Lee’s dream of returning to his original place of work if he ever becomes successful and bossing around the people who had once been his demanding superiors. This situation is described as the perfect revenge, which shows his disgruntled and bitter attitude toward the structure of social hierarchy in America.

Furthermore, throughout the novel, there is a recurring theme of authenticity of culture. In many scenes, readers sense a struggle between Wong Wan-Lee’s desire to maintain authentic Chinese culture and the reality of ‘Americanized’ Chinese traditions. In a discussion about food, Wong Wan-Lee claims, “We Chinese eat not Chop Suey. We Chinese eat no Chow Mein. We eat genuine Chinese food” (100). On the Chinese New Year, after Wong Wan-Lee leaves the club intended to be a haven for the ‘real Chinese’ from the swarms of Americans crowded in Chinatown to witness a cultural experience, Wong Wan-Lee comments on the swarms of tourists crowded around a building advertised as a Chinese Temple, but was really a Metropolitan Museum of Oriental Art in Chinatown. Throughout the novel, there is also a tension between American born Chinese people and Chinese immigrants. An interesting question that this novel provokes is: how can foreign cultures be vibrant in America but not be somewhat influenced or changed by American society? Isn’t it inherent that traditions will be ‘Americanized’ if practiced in America?

Some guidelines and suggestions

Welcome to our Virtual Discussion Space. Here are some suggestions that will help you post and read Reading Responses and comments. If you’re unfamiliar with these practices, the first time may require some additional time. It should get easier fast, but contact me anytime if you have questions or frustrations.

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